WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

21 Dec 2019 | Commentary

Human Rights Trends of the 2010s: a Historic Thaw for U.S.-Cuba Relations, Now at Risk


This article is part of WOLA’s series looking at some of the most significant human rights trends and events of the 2010s.

See the full series here.

The decade started with modest but positive steps towards improving U.S.-Cuba relations, such as when President Obama shook President Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2012. That year marked five decades since the beginning of the United States’ failed embargo on Cuba—a relic of Cold War-era policy that purported to encourage democratic change on the island by isolating it economically and politically, but instead served to increase suffering among the Cuban people, did nothing to improve human rights or democracy on the island, and left the U.S. government isolated in the international community. 

2014 saw a historic shift—the biggest change in U.S-Cuba policy in five decades, when President Obama announced a normalization of relations and asked Congress to take action to lift the failed embargo. As the U.S. government eased restrictions on travel and trade, reopened its embassy in Havana, and removed its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor” of terrorism, this more open, engaged approach attracted widespread bipartisan support in Congress. With Obama’s historic three-day visit to Havana in March 2016—the first by a sitting president in over 80 years—the U.S. government continued to push forward a new era of relations between the two countries. 

However, this historic opening suffered a dramatic reversal under the Trump administration, which reinstated limits on travel and trade (even though public opinion, including a majority of registered Republican voters, showed broad support for greater engagement).  In another step backwards for relations, the State Department withdrew a significant number of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, citing mysterious “sonic attacks” on personnel. The Trump administration doubled down on its confrontational approach with sanctions against President Raúl Castro and his family, greater restrictions on commercial airline service, and other punitive measures that received widespread condemnation from leading Members of Congress and international allies. 

Collectively, all of these counterproductive, hardline measures serve to damage U.S. national interests, and—as evidenced from decades of the failed embargo—will do nothing to further human rights or political reforms in Cuba. 

Significantly, the past decade also saw Cuba advance a slow, but important process of internal change. As the nascent private sector expanded, entrepreneurship increased. Cubans enjoyed greater freedom of travel, more space for political debate, greater access to the Internet, and a more active civil society. The post-Castro era officially began in 2018, when President Raúl Castro stepped down as president and Miguel Díaz-Canel was sworn in as his successor. In 2019, a new constitution came into force, expanding social, political, and economic rights in the most significant constitutional reforms since 1976. 

These gradual changes in Cuba’s political and economic system have not yet brought about more profound transformations: freedom of expression remains severely limited, and the government continues to use repressive tactics to silence human rights defenders and other critics. But it is clear that the U.S. government can help support this slow process of change by pursuing policies of openness and engagement—or it can hinder it, by doubling down on the hardline approach favored by the Trump administration. 

See some of WOLA’s work on Cuba:

  • A bipartisan Congressional Working Group on Cuba, established with backing from WOLA, strives to advance more engaged U.S.-Cuba relations. 
  • WOLA President Geoff Thale’s testimony before Congress about how greater engagement with Cuba can help advance human rights (2015). 
  • Factsheet: Why engagement with Cuba benefits the United States (2016).